The Best State for Opportunity Is … Vermont?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because geography matters in achieving the American Dream.
By Daniel Malloy
OZY is proud to partner with Opportunity Nation to reveal the results of their 2017 Opportunity Index, which measures the economic, educational and civic factors that foster opportunity and economic mobility.
It’s the land of sumptuous Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, epic Phish jams, stunning ski resorts and the firebrand liberal politics of Bernie Sanders. Vermont is also the best state to be born in, all other things being equal, if you want a shot at success.
Vermont is the top-ranked state for opportunity for the seventh consecutive year.
The crown comes via the 2017 Opportunity Index, published by Opportunity Nation, a bipartisan advocacy group devoted to reducing the opportunity gap and expanding economic mobility nationwide. The new report, shared exclusively with OZY in advance of its release, shows opportunity advancing across the country — driven by an improving economy. But incomes and jobs, while important, do not tell the whole story of opportunity. The index is broken down into four parts: Economy, Education, Community and, new this year, Health. Within those categories, the Opportunity Index takes into account a wide variety of metrics, from access to banking services to high school graduation rates to volunteerism.
The numbers show wide gaps in opportunity across states and counties. The list begins with the Green Mountain State, with a score of 63.3 out of 100, while New Mexico sits in last place at 40.9. Across the 20 different metrics Opportunity Nation uses, the factors that most correlated with an overall opportunity score were rates of postsecondary education, incarceration and disconnected youth — the percentage of people between the ages of 16 and 24 not in school or working. Opportunity Nation’s executive director, Monique Rizer, says a focus “on those life-transition points” is critical to tackling the gaps between the possibilities for a child born in Vermont and a child born in New Mexico.
So what is it about Vermont? It doesn’t have the loudest-roaring economy (that’s North Dakota, thanks to an oil boom), but Vermont soars on community metrics, including its low crime rate. It also has among the best health scores in the country, which is measured by rates of health insurance, low birth weight and so-called “deaths of despair” — from suicide or substance abuse. University of Vermont provost David Rosowsky sees it in less tangible metrics. “There are other small states or accessible states or funky cool environmentally conscious states, but there’s only Vermont that has this perfect size, scale and ethos,” he says. Boasting a population of 625,000, Vermont is the second-smallest state — the only one with fewer people is Wyoming. About a third of the population lives in the Burlington area, and pretty much the whole state is within a two-hour drive.
It’s also fairly homogeneous. Rizer says a 93 percent white racial makeup and high opportunity score is no coincidence. “Diversity in the long run is great for innovation,” she says. “It’s what makes this country great. But in the short run, it is challenging. So communities that don’t have to deal with the complexities from a high percentage of people from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds, coming from different countries, eliminate some of the inherent challenges of forming community.”
Rosowsky sees the overwhelming whiteness as a challenge to overcome, along with a relatively high cost of living and the state’s “egalitarian” politics — in which small numbers of people can effectively hold up major change. Vermont’s population has actually declined slightly in recent years, and it lacks the scale and amenities to attract some major businesses. (Don’t expect Amazon HQ2 to come to Stowe.) But it punches above its weight, with a strong university, health care system and startup culture in Burlington. Rosowsky points out Vermont was ahead of the curve on the locavore and organic farming movements, as environmental stewardship is a big part of its identity. “But this is truly a unique state,” he adds, “and I know nobody’s going to try to be like Vermont. And nobody should try to be like Vermont.” They’ll keep the opportunity title for themselves, thank you very much.